India's lack of water will drive the need for solar and wind energy more than concerns over climate change will, according to a report released Tuesday.
More than 80 percent of the subcontinent's electricity comes from power plants that require freshwater cooling, which presents a problem since a lack of water was the prime culprit for some power plants shutting down over the last five years, according to the World Resources Institute, a nonpartisan environmental think tank in Washington.
The plants include both coal and nuclear generators, called thermal plants because of the heat they produce to make electricity. "Thermal power plants have been forced to shut down due to inaccessibility of cooling water, losing tens of terawatt-hours of electricity generation in recent years," the report said.
The report is the first comprehensive study of how access to water is affecting India's energy needs.
India lost about 14 terawatt-hours of power generation because of water shortages in 2016, which canceled "out more than 20 percent of growth in the country’s total electricity generation from 2015," according to the report.
One terawatt is equivalent to burning about 1 billion tons of coal annually. By comparison, the U.S. burned about 700 million tons of coal in 2016 for electricity.
The scenario will only grow worse as India's economy grows and the demand for fossil fuels and nuclear power increase, putting utilities and industries in a fight for water. The country still has 300 million people who do not have access to electricity in a country of 1.2 billion. A blackout in 2012 that turned out the lights for over half a billion people helped to underscore the fragility of India's grid.
One of the ways for India to avoid the increased water scarcity is to meet its aggressive goals for building photovoltaic solar panels and wind turbines, the report recommends to the Indian government.
"Water consumption from India’s thermal power generation rose steadily every year between 2011 and 2016 but would stay below its 2016 level by 2027 if the country’s most ambitious renewable goals are successfully achieved," the report stated.
The country also would have to establish strict water use regulations.
The report found that if the country moved ahead on its aggressive renewable energy targets, it could keep demand for water well below 2016 levels, despite a more than 60 percent projected rise in electricity production.
"However, even maintaining 2016 water consumption levels implies continued risk of electricity outages, competition with other rapidly growing sectors, and increased variability in local water supplies due to climate change," the report said.
The report discussed climate change as a factor that would place more pressure on water resources with increased levels of drought and other climatic shifts occurring with the rise in the average global temperature.
Many scientists blame the burning of fossil fuels and the creation of more greenhouse gases for driving up the Earth's temperature. The report frames renewable energy use as a way to cope with the effects of climate change, not necessarily to abate or curtail it.
India's aggressive targets for solar and other renewable energy development are part of the country's obligations under the Paris climate change accord. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to build 100 gigawatts of solar by 2020, which is attracting investment. One megawatt of energy can power between 600 and 1,200 homes depending on how stressed the grid is at certain times of the day.
A separate study done last summer by the U.S. government and India under the "Greening the Grid" program showed that India could almost double the 100 GW by 2022, bringing online 175 gigawatts of solar.
President Trump stoked the ire of India last year when he withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, saying the 2015 emissions deal stands to benefit India and China more than the United States.
"India will be allowed to double its coal production by 2020," Trump said last June in announcing his exit from the deal. "Think of it: India can double their coal production. We’re supposed to get rid of ours.”
Trump said the Paris agreement is "more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the U.S.” than it is about climate change.